CNN’s losing streak has gotten so bad that the once legendary cable news channel is looking like the 1962 Mets. The manager of the Mets that year, Casey Stengel, bluntly assessed his team that season and said, “Can’t anybody here play this game?’ CNN brass should be asking that very question now.
The problem for CNN is that their mistakes aren’t just about bobbling ground balls and an inability to hit a curve ball. CNN’s problems are self-inflicted and created by a culture that has focused more on television’s bright lights, revenue generation, and pushing narratives than authentic journalism. Worse, the consequences for losing in broadcast journalism are damaging to the nation’s news dialogue and information needs.
Consider the carnage at CNN in just the last few days. CNN retracted and apologized for a story about a Trump transition team member and the Russians. Three veteran CNN staffers resigned over that sloppy reporting. Hidden camera video came out this week which appeared to show a CNN producer saying that the Russia reporting was being overdone for ratings purposes. CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta seems to spend more time whining about press briefing restrictions than actually covering White House news.
Earlier this year, CNN reported in advance the content of former FBI Director Comey’s congressional testimony. That report turned out to be incorrect. CNN had to terminate comedian Kathy Griffin from her New Year’s show duties because of her severed head of Trump gag. CNN canned host Reza Aslan from his series for indecorous comments about Trump on Twitter. Then there was the flap last fall about campaign debate questions leaking from CNN to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE.
CNN president Jeff Zucker reportedly told staffers this week that the organization needs to “play error-free ball” in what will now surely be an atmosphere of increasing scrutiny of CNN. That’s fine, but Stengel also admonished his players during that dreadful 1962 season and they continued to lose because the culture of ineptitude was too ingrained. That’s the danger CNN now faces. These examples of journalistic malpractice didn’t just show up overnight. The newsroom environment allowed it to happen in the first place.
Zucker came to CNN in early 2013 and told staffers in a memo that the definition of news should “evolve” and be described more broadly. CNN news shows moved into more opinion-based content and advocacy. There is a role for that kind of journalism, of course, but the lines must be clearly defined and that hasn’t happened at CNN. Viewers can tell where news anchors Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon stand on most issues.
Zucker made his name in television as the long-time executive producer of the NBC gabfest “Today Show.” He later ascended to be president and CEO of NBC Universal. His journalistic chops would hardly qualify him to be one of the legendary “Murrow boys.” It is his job, however, to inject journalistic discipline into CNN. Or do what honorable coaches of losing teams do and step aside.
A sad aspect of the CNN turmoil is that the channel is backed by the massive financial resources of Time Warner. This is an organization that doesn’t need to pander to lowest common denominator ratings gimmicks at the exclusion of doing the right thing. It has the money to do news of substance and invest in creating a news agenda that could enlighten the nation. CNN makes a healthy profit for its corporate parent and needn’t cut journalistic corners to keep the lights on. Making money and striving for ratings are what media corporations do, but that doesn’t preclude doing the hard work of professional journalism that the citizenry sorely needs.
In the meantime, the beneficiary of CNN’s professional lapses is Fox News Channel, which itself was the focus of scrutiny in recent months with its own problems. No news organization wants to be in the news. FNC responded to its bruises by removing top executive and revamping prime time talent. CNN may now be in a position to have to implement a similar strategy.
Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.
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